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back again

January 17, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m currently sitting on an incredibly slow train to Moscow from Saint Petersburg. I’ve just wrapped up another couple of weeks in Russia.

Initially I had planned to head down south to the border near Chechnya to go skiing with a few Russian friends of mine although the place we were planning on staying apparently had a fairly major problem with its sewage system causing all matters faecal to overrun the house. We thought, given the heating was also broken, perhaps we’d better postpone heading down to a region next door to a warzone to stay in a place with frozen poo all over the place…

And that’s why I returned to Saint Petersburg.

The last week has been interesting. I arrived in Moscow on the 30th but planned to head to Saint Petersburg the following day on the train.

The weather was warmer than normal in Moscow, hovering around -3 degree centigrade with about 10cms of snow on the ground. You wouldn’t have really known that though just by looking around at what people were wearing. Most middle-aged women have dusted off out their Shuba – their long winter coat designed for a subzero temperatures usually made from some kind of exotic endangered animal.

I caught the train into the centre of Moscow from the airport to track down my place to stay. I managed to negotiate my way around the metro to the correct stop before asking a group of babushka’s for directions to my hostel. As I had barely spoken a word of Russian since I lived here, my skills were fairly crappy but I communicated adequately. I wandered around with my bag on my back for a few hours but couldn’t find the place I was after. As cliché-Russian as it might sound absolutely everyone I asked for help was drunk. The only people I asked that weren’t drunk was a group of people in a supermarket who were significantly more interested in first determining I wasn’t an American and then that kangaroos actually lived in Australia.

The place I was looking for turned out to be right next door to the supermarket but I didn’t find this out from the workers, I found that out from some drunk bloke on the street.

At 2am I wandered into the hostel.

I managed to get a few hours sleep before getting up to catch my train to Saint Petersburg.

I’ve got quite used to Russian trains now, all it basically takes is having a fairly high tolerance for the smell of stale tobacco and body odour from people rugged up like it’s -75 outside. I got to Saint Petersburg and met up with my friends.

The following days mainly involved my Russian language skills getting a very good workout, lots of drinking and quality conversation. I saw in the New Year at a friend’s restaurant with about ten others. New Years in Russia is usually a family affair, much like Christmas is for us back at home. We ate a whole range of Russian food, drank vodka and listened to Medvedev’s presidential speech at midnight despite several of my friends’ involvement in the recent political protests.

At around about 3am we staggered out of the restaurant and headed downtown. After a few kebabs and a few hours walking, someone came up with the idea to head out to my friend’s country house via a Chasnik’ – a random person you flag down on the street who agrees to take you wherever you want for a predetermined price.

And with that we arrived at my friend’s house in the middle of nowhere about one hour’s drive outside of Saint Petersburg. There the New Year’s festivities continued for three days.

We eventually made our way back into town a couple of days later. As we had initially planned to travel down south to ski, we were still quite keen on some kind of adventure. I threw around the idea of Murmansk, a city in the far north in the arctic circle about 1,300kms away. We decided, after much discussion that, while Murmansk would be an adventure, the amount of snow on the roads, the limited hours of daylight and the time it would take to get there, weren’t really worth it in the end.

Instead we went to a town about 150kms away called Veliki Novgorod (The Great New City). The city itself, despite its name, wasn’t new at al, it was about 1,000 years old.

We wandered around Novgorod for a while before deciding it was significantly too cold and snowy to bother, so we settled for soup and tea in a tiny café nearby the city’s old Kremlin.

My remaining few days in Saint Petersburg involved traditional alcohol festivities, eating bear and catching up with friends I had made when I lived there last year. For the recording: I did initially object to eating bear but then gave in.

New Years

The last year

Given another year has passed by I thought now would be a good time for a bit of reflection. I haven’t updated my blog in ages, not because I haven’t wanted to or I’ve been too lazy, but because my life has been fairly standard coming and going from work and living in London.

Back in early 2010 I made the decision to leave for Russia.

Initially I had only planned to stay in Russia six months but my decision to stay there much longer was not a particularly difficult one to make. In the middle of last year I packed my stuff up again and headed to London where I hoped to find work despite the grim jobs market. London was like coming back to Australia but without the friends and family and with subtle differences like red phone boxes and double-decker buses.

Australians are also everywhere in England, most coming over between their school and university studies to take advantage of the two-year working visa arrangement. This means being Australian isn’t really a novelty or much of an advantage as many people just assume you’re in England to work in a pub like everyone else.

Without a doubt 2011 was a year chocker-block full of new challenges, many of which at the time seemed completely shit but in hindsight were crazy but very rewarding.

Having an opportunity to live in a different place like Russia which is challenging and where people hold different opinions, values and come from often less privileged walks of life, is something that everyone – particularly young Australians – should do. I wrote about my experience in Russia throughout last year in this post.

I’ve written about Russia’s emerging educated middle-class, young people that are internet-savvy and switched on to the pros and cons of their own life within their country. Over the last few months we’ve seen a ‘political uprising’ or a ‘Russian spring’ as some members of the western press have labelled it. But many of the young, educated Russians I’ve talked to remain significantly more restrained about the current and future political situation in their country.

And from what I’ve experienced the broader Russian population remains remarkably complacent towards politics and life in their country. What will be will be seems to be the attitude providing things don’t go backwards.

For the first time I’ve seen people from the Yabloko party – the main opposition party to United Russia, Putin’s party – out on the streets asking for signatures in support fair elections. Irrespective of the outcome of the recent protests, they have demonstrated a newly found political voice of some well-educated young people that are no longer satisfied with a government of ‘crooks and thieves’ and who want to be afforded the same political and democratic freedoms as their western counterparts.

For some reason this train has stopped in the middle of nowhere for about an hour, probably because the driver is ahead of schedule and needs to wait until it’s the right time according to the timetable to keep moving to the next station. Surely the earlier the train arrives at the next station the better but apparently not.

I’ll be updating this blog throughout 2012 so don’t forget to subscribe on the right hand side of the page.

Matt

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a journey to the end of the earth

March 14, 2011 4 comments

Displeased with our progress so far

If Russia’s border with Estonia was the end of the earth, I was there on Friday. A few weeks earlier Elliott, an American friend of mine studying Russian here, asked me to join him on an adventure to Estonia. As I mentioned in my last blog, we planned to get there using the cheapest possible form of transport – hitchhiking.

We set off on Friday afternoon towards the Saint Petersburg suburbs in search of a position to begin our voyage. After catching the subway to the very last stop, then a mini-bus to the last stop, we arrived in what we thought looked like a good position to hail down a ride to Estonia.

Our planned destination was Tallinn, the capital of Estonia  some 600 kilometres away. The mini bus dropped us off essentially on a freeway. After walking through snow trying to find a suitable place for cars to pull over, we began ‘hitching’.

Normally within the city limits people hitchhike all over the place to avoid paying for more expensive, certified taxis. Unlike back at home, the idea of getting in a car with a complete stranger isn’t thought of as a bad idea in Russia. With that in mind, we assumed people would be more than happy to pick up a couple of young, approachable looking guys so we could join them on their trip.

It didn’t really take very long for a few people to pull over. Although several people were happy to pick us up, most were only driving a few kilometres into town, or wanted us to pay them to take us which kind of defeated the purpose. One person suggested trying a petrol station on the other side of town, so we caught a bus to that location. Unfortunately, the bus only dropped us off within a few kilometres of the petrol station we needed so we were forced to walk.

Elliott’s video diary

Another guy by the name of Alexander pulled over as we walking to the petrol station and offered to take us to the petrol station. On the way he fired up his two-way radio transmitter and stuck a large aerial to the top of his car. He then attempted to contact truck drivers who were going to Tallinn with the hope they could take us at least part of the way. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t get a decent signal to maintain a conversation longer than only a few words. He dropped us off at the petrol station anyway and wished as a successful journey.

Walking along the freeway

By this point we were already three hours into the trip and hadn’t gone any further than 20kms out of Saint Petersburg. We gave ourselves twenty minutes before we called it a day and caught the bus back to where we started. Disgusted at potentially having to do that, we starting pestering basically every person that walked in and out of the petrol station providing they ‘looked’ like they were going to Estonia.

Annoyingly, almost everyone flatly refused to take us as most were only going a few kilometres down the road or already had a full car. Finally, just when we’d pretty much had enough of standing out in the cold asking strangers for a lift, one guy by the name of Dima responded to us optimistically.

After thinking for a few minutes, potentially weighing up the possibility we were going to murder him during the journey, he said he could use the company on his long drive back to his town that, conveniently for us, was located relatively close to the Estonian border. I sat in the front while Elliott slept in the back. We successfully ran the gauntlet that is Russian highways in Dima’s work’s small truck and eventually arrived in the Russian border-town of Kingsepp.

After our lift with Dima: more pleased

From there, we caught a bus to the near-by town of Ivangorod where we hoped we could walk across the border into Estonia. At that point I was pretty thirsty so when we got to Ivangorod we looked for a place where we could buy a bottle of water. We found a small shop but for some strange reason they would not sell me water, only beer, gin or vodka. As I attempted to explain to the lady that I didn’t feel like an alcoholic beverage at that point, she grunted and unwillingly opened the non-alcoholic beverage fridge.

We headed for the border on foot but came across a small building with an ‘information’ sign on the top of it. Elliott insisted we go in so we could ‘interview’ someone on everything Ivangorod had on offer. The people inside were very happy to see us and interested to hear what on earth we were doing in that part of the world. About thirty minutes later, just before sundown, we walked out of the building with pamphlets, CDs, calendars and pens in hand and Elliott’s interview he taped on his camera.

Shortly before crossing the border I was approached by an elderly Russian man who asked if I could take a bottle of wine from Russia into Estonia on his behalf as he already met the maximum amount for bringing alcohol into Europe. I agreed and had a bit of chat to him. Like many people over here, his knowledge of Australia was limited to what he’d heard or seen on TV. Almost everyone over the age of 35 I meet always mentions the movie Crocodile Dundee, often raving about it as a cinematic masterpiece.

We crossed the border and headed for the outskirts of town to hopefully flag down our next victim. Unfortunately, as Elliott had spent so long interviewing the bloke at the tourist information centre, it was already getting quite dark, making hitchhiking difficult. After standing in the cold for another hour or so, we decided we’d split up while Elliott tried the side of the road and I targeted a near-by petrol station. While everyone in Estonia seemed more interested in taking us than those in Russia, most people again weren’t going in the direction of Tallinn. After about two hours of trying to get a car and failing, Elliott and I rendezvoused and made an executive decision. The lady at the petrol station assisted us to call a taxi so we could take the remainder of the journey on the bus.

At about 11pm, some 12 hours after we left Saint Petersburg, we arrived in Tallinn on a comfortable bus that only ended up costing us nine euros… Some would ask why we didn’t just take the bus to begin with, but we just told ourselves it was the experience that was the most valuable thing.

Tallinn

Although we had arranged a CouchSurfer for the night we arrived, as we got in so late we figured it wouldn’t have been fair to call on them. We checked ourselves in to a hostel before heading out to explore Tallinn by night.

The following morning we woke up with killer headaches with only a few minutes to spare before we had to check-out with the intention of going to the CouchSufer’s place that night. After a refreshing cuppa, we opted to stay another night at the hostel as it was extremely cheap, convenient, the people were good quality, and it meant we didn’t have to fulfil certain obligations that are expected when staying with CouchSurfers.

That night we again hit town, this time keen to explore some of the more local hangouts.

On Sunday we walked around the medieval town centre looking in several small shops, coffee shops, antique dealers, churches and other places before I had to catch the bus back to Saint Petersburg and Elliott headed to Riga.

The bus was extremely comfortable, had WIFI and a coffee machine passengers could use whenever they wanted. It took about six hours to drive back, not including the hour or so we were stopped at the border. Almost every time I go through the border into Russia, the Russian border officer asks me 20 questions – what I’m doing in Russia etc, despite my visa clearly identifying I’m a student. Perhaps an Australian coming in to Russia via Estonia is a bit of a novelty. 

Tallinn was sensational. Small, ancient, picturesque and surprisingly highly developed. Due to the composition of Estonia’s population – nearly 50% Estonian and 50% Russian – nearly everyone is tri or bilingual. Although we were only there for a few days, there was a general sense of tension between those who spoke Russian and those who spoke Estonian, probably for good reason given Estonia was formerly a part of the USSR and that as as result, everyone was forced to learn and speak Russian.

Back in Saint Petersburg, the big thaw has begun. We’re now almost two weeks in to spring and already it’s +4 degrees. Although the warmer weather makes heading outside more pleasant, the streets have basically turned into slush due to the melting snow and ice.

As I said last time, I’m working on a more substantial, edited video of my time here so I’ll hopefully have that finished and up relatively soon. As those of you who have edited video before know, cutting and compiling video can often take a very long time, especially when all I have to use is my slow Eee PC. If you haven’t already, subscribe to my blog on the right, it doesn’t take a sec.

Matt

Thanks to Elliott for the pics